Animation is set to dominate the post-pandemic television landscape. Though typically thought of as kid’s stuff, there’s just as many hilarious cartoons that adults should be watching as there are iconic live-action sitcoms. While many “important” sitcoms today are just 30 minute dramas, jokes are the bread and butter of the animation world. Animated series bridge the gap not just between generations, but between the relatable and the absurd, the mature and the immature. Even the shows intended for a youthful audience often find themselves with a rather large adult fanbase.
Cartoons are easier to fund than live-action sitcoms, allowing for fringe, experimental projects and runs that span decades. Though many fail to stand the test of time or end up devolving into an odious shell of their former selves, there will always be a place in comedy for great animation.
Here are the best adult-ish animated series that are always worth a rewatch.
All blurbs by Olivia Cathcart except where noted.
More than just the other Matt Groening show, the endlessly quotable Futurama launched a thousand memes. It brings The Simpsons’ comedic brand into untapped territory, a distant future full of robots, space aliens, and sewer mutants where there are no limits to imagination. It’s full of all the dumb one-liners, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags, and warmth you’d expect from Groening. Its initial cancellation by Fox will remain one of the most bone-headed moves by a major network.
The Belcher family came out swinging in 2011. America’s favorite family features lovably weird personalities with instantly-iconic voices. From the nervous, hormone-charged Tina to the terrifyingly clever-for-her-age Louise, Burgers showcases familiar working-class woes through the lens of an original and energizing cast of characters. The show was quickly and enthusiastically embraced by fans and regularly finds itself at the top of many best-of discussions.
You know a show’s going to be great when you hear H. Jon Benjamin’s voice. The action-packed Archer is a dysfunctional, rowdy workplace comedy wrapped in vintage, Bond-esque flare. A true ensemble series, the show gives each of it’s bawdy and sassy characters it’s equal share of the spotlight including Judy Greer’s loony, unpredictable Cheryl and the only mother more withholding than Lucille Bluth, the late, great Jessica Walter’s Malory Archer.
Don’t let one small but too-damn-loud sector of this show’s fanbase deter you from watching. Obnoxious fans aside, Rick and Morty made an immediate impact upon its premier and quickly solidified itself as one of our best-written adult cartoons. A good cartoon is both smart and stupid and just about every character exemplifies this (except Jerry). Although drunk jackass Rick and high-strung, high-pitched Morty are the leads, older sister Summer and a Simpsons-esque roster of bizarre one-off characters are the stars of this sci-fi, raunchy shitshow.
Like Archer, The Venture Bros. is a black comedy that blends the old with the new. The series satirizes superhero comics, action films, and the boy adventurer trope of the ‘60s, a la Johnny Quest, in both plot and art design. It was unique for a cartoon in that it allowed its characters to grow more significantly over each season, including entire heel turns for some of its more deadly foes. With themes of growing pains, daddy issues, and existentialism, Venture Bros. was able to maintain its comedic voice while exploring multiple, refreshing storylines. Thankfully, Adult Swim has commissioned a follow-up film to keep the story going.
As we’ve covered before, Lucas Bros. Moving Co. is stoner comedy excellence. Full of references to ‘90s pop culture, comedians Keith (or “Keef”) and Kenny Lucas’ short-lived series married adult subjects with simple, lighthearted foolishness. It’s a chill, cool, comfort show that deserved so much more.
When you really consider the traits and personalities of the characters, one can’t help but realize that King of the Hill is honestly one of the most unique animated shows of both the 1990s and 2000s. Name one other popular, long-running sitcom where the protagonists—people we at least like, if not agree with—are staunch conservative, mildly redneck individuals. You can’t do it, because King of the Hill tapped into an aspect of the American ethos that is often ridiculed and made those characters funny, human everymen. With the possible exception of Peggy (who can be a real pill with few redeeming qualities), the characters on King of the Hill are really decent people, even when they’re a little overzealous. But in the end, Hank always fundamentally does the right thing, even if that does involve threats to “kick your ass” on a disturbingly regular basis.—Jim Vorel
Here’s another gone-too-soon series. It says a lot about a show to secure a spot in the zeitgeist with only 13 episodes under its belt. Bolstered by a ridiculous premise—reimagining famous political figures as modern-day teens—Clone High was a promising pivot to scripted programming for MTV. The meta comedy was a unique blend of sci-fi and adolescent melodrama that garnered a cult following large enough to earn a reboot nearly two decades later.
Adventure Time is a great example of a kids show with a huge adult fanbase. The series is proof that all-ages comedy doesn’t have to be broad and cheap. Sure, on its surface it seems like pure, cutesy fare, but don’t let the bright colors and adorable characters fool you. The show is deceptively somber. Our heroes, Finn the Human and Jake the Dog, exist in a magical land full of candy and penguins that exists as a result of a nuclear apocalypse that wiped out the human race. A slew of accompanying mini-series regularly unravels the grittiness of the show’s lore that’ll evoke both tears and laughter. It’s the only post-apocalyptic series that features buff cupcakes and screaming lemon people.
Before he launched Bob’s Burgers, Loren Bouchard hooked up with stand-up comedian Brendon Small to create Home Movies for UPN. It didn’t last long, getting yanked off that failed netlet’s schedule after only five episodes. Adult Swim gave it a new life, though, relaunching the show alongside the entire programming block in 2001. (Indeed, it was the very first show to air under the Adult Swim name.) It was a show worth saving—the kind of low-key, realistic, character-centered show that’s rare in animation, focused on an elementary school student named after Small who takes his video camera with him everywhere he goes. Like with King of the Hill, don’t expect the joke-a-second blitzkrieg pace of Family Guy or The Simpsons, but something that feels a bit more like a traditional sitcom.—Garrett Martin
Rocko’s Modern Life was a kid’s show that really felt like an adult sitcom in disguise. Though it debuted on Nickelodeon—the GOAT of kids programming in the early ‘90s—many parents at the time found Rocko to be too crude for kids. The series did focus on adult characters and its sense of humor ran the gamut of silly, goofball gags (a home renovation project that turned every room into a bathroom) to blatant innuendos and just-tame-enough violence (Really Really Big Man’s nipples of the future). Today, it stands as one of Nickelodeon’s smartest and riskiest picks.
I mean, c’mon. No matter how many forgettable seasons they keep pumping out, it will never undo the 15ish seasons of pure gold it’s gifted us. It remains some of the best television ever produced.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.